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Expert opinion: EU immigration - the gap between rhetoric and evidence

Veteran Tory Minister Ken Clarke has argued that immigration has contributed positively and significantly to the UK economy, saying we are unlikely to experience “vast” or “unacceptable” levels of immigration, particularly from Romania and Bulgaria.

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, veteran Tory Minister Ken Clarke argued that immigration has contributed positively and significantly to the UK economy, and that EU free-movement is unlikely to lead to "vast" or "unacceptable" levels of future immigration, particularly from Romania and Bulgaria.

Clarke's intervention exacerbated infighting among Conservative members of the Coalition Government, despite merely re-stating arguments made by many academics and other independent experts. However, Clarke was directly contradicting recent statements from the Prime Minister and other senior ministers (notably Ian Duncan Smith and Theresa May), who have argued that "vast migrations" (the term used by David Cameron himself in an earlier article in the FT) have been accompanied by widespread "benefit tourism", something that has yet to be identified in the available evidence.

This intervention has significance far beyond Conservative Party HQ, because Clarke eluded to several important aspects of migration that have been either conspicuously lacking or purposively misrepresented in the wider public debate.

First, the UK has not experienced increasing "waves" of migration since the 2004 EU enlargement which brought in eight Central and Eastern European Countries (CEECs).

We recently demonstrated this with freely available official data in an article for Nottingham Trent University. For the two years immediately following the 2004 EU enlargement, the UK did experience a significant inflow of (mainly) CEEC nationals, with an annual high-point of 302,300 additional residents due to migration between mid-2004 and mid-2005.

However, net-migration has fallen steeply since then and currently accounts for a minority of annual population growth (natural change, such as a recent baby boom currently contributes more than net migration). Migrants continue to account for a small minority of the population in almost all local authority areas in England and Wales, with CEEC migrants accounting for just 2% of the total population.

Putting this in perspective, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that 6.5% of adults born in the UK have emigrated to live, work or retire in other OECD countries.

A second problematic facet of the debate is the idea that the UK has experienced significant "benefit tourism". This is not only claimed without supporting evidence, but in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. Recent estimates published by the UK Office for National Statistics demonstrate that adults in the UK who were born in the eight CEEC accession states have an employment rate of 79%, compared to an average of 72% for all UK residents, with the employment rate for those Bulgarian and Romanian nationals already in the UK at 77%.

Moreover, politicians' claims about benefit tourism fly in the face of their own internal evidence. Analysis published by the Department of Work and Pensions in January 2012 found that migrants were much less likely than average to claim working-age benefits. Despite a press release in which ministers Chris Grayling and Damian Green declared that they had uncovered the "worrying issue" of benefit tourism, the DWP data demonstrated quite the reverse.

This might explain why it was not offered to the European Commission in response to their repeated requests for evidence on benefit tourism from the UK Government through the autumn of 2013.

The DWP analysis estimated that only 6.4% of working-age benefits were claimed by non-UK nationals. EU nationals (excluding CEEC nationals) accounted for only 1% of claimants and CEEC nationals accounted for a further 0.5%. When these figures are expressed as a proportion of the total working age population (rather than as a proportion of claims), 6.6% of working age non-UK nationals were claiming DWP benefits, compared to 16.6% of UK nationals – i.e. UK nationals were more than 2.5 times more likely to be claiming benefits than migrants.

A third troublesome dimension of the public debate is the under-emphasis on the positive impact of migration on the UK budget and wider economy. In his recent appearance before the Treasury Select Committee, Robert Chote, head of the Office for Budgetary Responsibility (appointed by the Chancellor as an independent fiscal advisory body), argued that immigration tends to "produce a more beneficial picture" for UK finances. Chote's argument is supported by a recent study from Christian Dustmann and Tommaso Frattini at University College London. As migrants are more likely to be working-age and in employment compared to the UK-born population, they contribute to a significant proportion of total income tax receipts while they are less likely to draw unemployment and other benefits, claim tax credits, or use publicly-funded education and health services - resulting in a substantial net contribution to the Exchequer.

The OBR has consistently argued that the UK requires a higher level of migration to fund future healthcare and pensions, and estimates that the closer the Government gets to its target to cut net immigration, the harder it will become to meet its deficit reduction targets.

Furthermore, much has been made of a recent report suggesting that the UK economy could grow to be larger than that of Germany by 2030. What was not reported so widely was that this outcome requires ongoing migration into the UK. Or, to put it another way, limiting migration will limit economic growth in the UK – to the detriment of everyone.

A new, fourth, dimension to the migration debate is the call by some in the Conservative party that the UK should have the right to veto EU laws of which they do not approve. This raises multiple issues, some of which result from the conflation of specific opposition to immigration with a more general opposition to the EU.

The most obvious problem would be the self-inflicted economic damage: migration benefits the UK and so cutting migration harms the UK. Some have made the point that such a move would be illegal under EU law. This argument is correct but, to those defiantly anti-EU, it merely reinforces their wider position regarding the UK's membership.

A recent report in the Financial Times finds that this tactic is opposed by key potential allies in the EU reform debate across the EU. While David Cameron is trying to build alliances in his desire to reform the EU, this could be seen as seeking to scupper such a move. In alienating potential allies, the chances of the UK achieving any substantive reform would be reduced. One of the arguments presented in the FT article is a quote from Germany's Foreign Minister, who highlights the benefits of migration and the damage to German, as well as EU, interests that UK proposals on migration would have.

We have now reached the point where senior UK politicians appear not to accept the vast prevailing body of evidence on the positive impacts migration has for the UK (including that coming from within offices of state), because it reveals the vacuity of their anti-migration rhetoric. An article in the New Statesmen by a colleague at the University of Nottingham, Matthew Goodwin, examines the long-term danger of this strategy for our democracy.

Analysing long-term trends in opinion polling, Professor Goodwin argues that political rhetoric – in attempting to capitalise on popular hostility to immigration for electoral advantage – merely creates expectations that the mainstream parties are unable to fulfil. This increases support for "protest" parties, such as the BNP in 2006 and UKIP more recently and leads to a wider disillusionment in the political system.

In this article we have attempted to illustrate some mainstream politicians' tendency towards "evidence-free" rhetoric on immigration. Although it may appear to them, and their supporters in the media, that fear of migrants and migration will serve their short-term political ends, historical trends in voter behaviour suggest that they are unlikely to be rewarded in the long-term, as they are stoking expectations that they will not, and should not, be able to meet.

Rob Ackrill is Professor of European Economics and Policy and Jean Monnet Chair in European Economic Studies, Division of Economics, Nottingham Business School.

Chris Lawton is Senior Research Fellow in the Economic Strategy Research Bureau, Division of Economics, Nottingham Business School.

Expert opinion: EU immigration - the gap between rhetoric and evidence

Published on 28 January 2014
  • Category: Press office; Nottingham Business School

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